As a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Rev. Chebon Kernell has seen firsthand the struggles Native communities face. Now, Kernell is part of an effort to bridge a better understanding and awareness between the United Methodist Church and Native communities.
Kernell, who is the executive secretary of Native American and Indigenous Ministries of the General Board of Global Ministries, recently led an Act of Repentance service for bishops from around the world in Oklahoma City. The service, part of a movement that started a few years ago to recognize the harms Christianity has done to indigenous communities throughout the world, celebrated indigenous women and their contributions.
“[The bishops] really don’t quite understand the gravity of our experience as Indigenous Peoples with Christianity,” Kernell said. “What we’re trying to get them to see is that there was a dual culpability that they must assume, because the churches were the actual catalysts of assimilation policies from the government.”
The church, Kernell said, has not fully acknowledged the damage done in the past, including the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado – where a Methodist minister led the attack and destruction of a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village – and the harms that continue today, specifically in the area of wellness and the right to live a life of wellness and spirituality as each person sees fit.
There are churches and denominations that still say only men can be spiritual leaders, Kernell noted. “Many of our tribal communities are quite opposite of that,” he added. “We have a reverence and a spirituality that is centered around the women of our community. The church, you may say, is kind of the opposite of that.”
That’s why the service held in Oklahoma City in early November featured three Native women talking about different aspects of culture and life: food sovereignty, spirituality and language preservation. Representatives from various tribes, including Yuchi, Lakota, Kiowa and Creek, were also in attendance.
Tamara Wilson, a United Methodist, was among the women who spoke at the service. Wilson shared stories of teaching the Yuchi language to kids and how it helped transform their lives.
In Native communities, she said, it’s not out of the ordinary for children to grow up in single-parents homes, for one parent to be incarcerated or for a relative other than a parent to raise the children. It’s leading to increases in domestic violence and alcohol and drug addiction, but, she said, showing children that they have a community that centers around their language and culture can help.
In fact, Wilson has a term for her belief that preserving the language can change the life of a child: save a language, save a people. “It’s helping kids identify themselves as a people,” she said of efforts to revitalize the language.
Wilson also spoke about her grandmother, who was forced to attend a boarding school and lost her ability to speak Yuchi. It wasn’t until years later that her grandmother attended language classes and relearned the language, Wilson said.
She urged spiritual leaders to recognize the importance language preservation has to Native American communities.
With 39 tribes in the state, it’s little surprise that spiritual leaders would want to come to Oklahoma to learn about Native American communities. Kernell said Oklahoma was selected as the host site because the bishops had wanted to parallel the Trail of Tears. Last year, the group met in North Carolina, and they had hoped to come to Oklahoma and immerse themselves in the various tribal communities all over the state. Unfortunately, time and resources were limited, he said, but added that he overall was proud of the program’s impact.
“Some of our leaders and volunteers who came, I don’t think we could have done a better job with the amount of time and resources we had,” Kernell said.
Still, the reverend said he’s not satisfied with the church’s understanding of Native Americans, tribal communities and the connection with the church.
“I don’t believe I will ever be satisfied until spiritual communities and people of faith are joining Indigenous Peoples side by side and standing up for the things that we believe in,” he said.
Spiritual leaders need to let Native communities decide what issues are important to them – whether it’s mascots, violence against women or something else – Kernell said, and walk beside them.
“We’ll tell you what our value system is,” he added.